The Physicists (German: Die Physiker) (written 1961, performed 1962, and published 1962, Verlags AG "Die Arche", Zürich, Switzerland) is a satiric drama often recognized as the most impressive yet most easily understood work of the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Informed by the Second World War and the many recent advances in science and nuclear technology, the play deals with questions of scientific ethics and mankind's ability to handle its intellectual responsibilities. The play was first performed in Zürich in 1962 and has remained popular in the decades since. It was translated into English by James Kirkup, and published in the US in 1964 by Grove Press, under its Evergreen imprint.
The story is set in the drawing room of Les Cerisiers sanatorium, an idyllic home for the mentally ill, run by famed psychiatrist Mathilde von Zahnd. This drawing room connects to three sick rooms each of which is inhabited by a single mentally ill patient. These three men, all physicists by trade, are permitted use of the drawing room, where they are periodically monitored by the female nurses that are charged with their care. The first patient is Herbert Georg Beutler, and he believes that he is Sir Isaac Newton. The second patient is Ernst Heinrich Ernesti, who believes himself to be Albert Einstein. The third patient is Johann Wilhelm Möbius, and he believes that he is regularly visited by the biblical King Solomon. When the play begins, "Einstein" has just killed one of his nurses, and the police are examining the scene. It is revealed through their discussion that this is the second slaying of a nurse by one of these three patients in just three months, the first having been committed by "Newton".
The motive behind these two murders becomes clear in the play's second act, when it is revealed with startling abruptness that none of the three patients are mad. They are all only faking insanity. Möbius is actually an incredibly brilliant physicist whose discoveries include such fabled results as a solution to the problem of gravitation, a "Unitary Theory of Elementary Particles", and the "Principle of Universal Discovery". Fearing what mankind could do with these powerful discoveries, Möbius chose not to reveal his work. He instead feigned madness, that he might be committed to a sanatorium and thus protected along with his knowledge. Möbius, though, failed to avoid attention. "Einstein" and "Newton" are both spies, representatives of two different countries, and they have penetrated Les Cerisiers in order to secure Möbius' documents and, if possible, the man himself. Each spy murdered a nurse to protect his secrets and to strengthen his simulation of madness.
In the play's climactic scene, all three men reveal their secrets, and each spy attempts to convince Möbius to come with him. It is he, however, who is successful in convincing them, persuading them that the secrets he has discovered are too terrible for man to know and assures them that their efforts are in vain because he recently burned all the papers that he developed during his time in the sanatorium. After much debate, the three men finally agree that they are content to protect mankind by living out the rest of their lives in captivity, while furthering and serving physics.
However, these noble plans are thwarted by the play's final plot twist. Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, head of Les Cerisiers, enters the drawing room and reveals to the three men that she has eavesdropped on their entire conversation. Furthermore, she has known about Möbius for years and has been secretly copying his documents and using his scientific discoveries to construct an international empire. She believes that King Solomon is speaking to her, and she believes that with his guidance and Möbius' discoveries, she can become the most powerful woman on earth.
The story ends with a sense of impending doom. Möbius, "Newton", and "Einstein" have been outmaneuvered and trapped, and the play ends with each of the three men speaking directly and pitiably to the audience, emphasizing their plight and the plight of all mankind.
In January 2013, BBC Radio 3 broadcast an adaptation by Matt Thompson, with Samantha Bond as Doctor von Zahnd, Geoffrey Whitehead as the inspector, John Hodgkinson as Möbius, Thom Tuck as Newton, John Bett as Einstein, and Madeleine Worrall as both Nurse Monika and Mrs Rose.